“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community…But the reverse is also true: let him who is not in community beware of being alone.”
In this paradoxical statement from his book Life Together, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer articulates one of the most important spiritual rhythms for all Christians but especially for those of us who are leaders—the rhythm of solitude and community.
What Bonhoeffer is stating so boldly is that if we do not take time regularly to enter into solitude and receive God’s unconditional love as the constant source of our identity, calling, and belonging, we become dangerous in the human community. Why? Because we will attempt to get from other human beings what only God can provide; we will demand that the community meet our needs for love, approval, a sense of self and whatever else we may be missing. Then when the community disappoints us, is unable to meet our needs or refuses our demands, we become frustrated and might take out our frustration on those around us through gossip, manipulation, attempts at controlling others. We may even start projecting our inner lacks onto others in the community—blaming them for not meeting needs that are not theirs to meet anyway.
Human community can never fully meet the needs that can only be met by a rich and satisfying relationship with God; it is a weight too heavy for any community to bear. When the shepherds do not spend time in solitude receiving their soul’s nourishment from God, they may start to feed on the sheep—the very flock they are supposed to be caring for. The result is leaders who are trying to get basic human needs for identity, approval and belonging met in the community rather than seeking to have these needs met in relationship with God.
To make matters even more complicated, our deepest unmet needs are often unconscious, as are our patterns for trying to get other human beings to meet them. If these legitimate human needs continue to remain unmet—as they ultimately will because they can never be fully met in any human relationship—spiritual starvation sets in and the shepherd eventually begins to devour the sheep.
A Little Desperation Goes a Long Way
A leader’s journey into solitude and silence has its own unique challenges. One of the subtle temptations of life in leadership is that the activities and experiences associated with leadership can be very addicting. The idea that I can do something about this, that, or the other thing feeds something in us that is voracious in its appetite. That “something” is the ego or the false self which, over time, identifies itself and shores itself up with external accomplishments and achievements, roles and titles, power and prestige. Leadership roles, by their very nature, provide a lot of fodder for the ego. To remove ourselves, even for a time, from the very arena where we are receiving so much of our identity can be difficult, if not impossible, no matter how much mental assent we give to the whole idea.
Many leaders preach solitude better than they practice it and I suspect this may be the nut of it. Leaders are busy, yes, and solitude necessitates that we pull away from the demands of our lives in ministry. This is never easy and involves many logistical challenges. But I think the real reason we resist actually moving into a more substantive experience of solitude may have more to do with the anxiety that comes as we pull away from that which we have allowed to define us externally. Usually we’re not willing to let go of all that unless we are desperate—as Elijah was when he went into the wilderness, as Moses was when we he fled to Midian, and as Paul was when he got knocked off his horse and sat in utter stillness for three days. So, if you’re feeling a little desperate in your own spiritual life, let it keep coming until it drives you into the wilderness of your own solitude—a very fruitful place for a leader to be.
The Rhythm of Ministry
Of course, the point of going into solitude is to return to our life in the company of others with something to give from the fullness of what we have received rather than approaching others from a place of emptiness demanding that they fill up what is lacking.
Henri Nouwen has said, “In order to be of service to others, we have to die to them.” Bonheoffer’s comments shed light on what Nouwen means. We can love the sheep, serve them and be committed to them; we can be vulnerable with them and receive the gifts God wants to give through them. But our ability to survive and to have our legitimate human needs—for identity, calling, approval, belonging and worth—met must come from the richness of our own intimacy with God cultivated in a balanced rhythm of solitude and community. What we must die to is requiring those we serve to meet our basic needs.
The beauty and effectiveness of solitude and community is not in either one alone but in the rhythm between the two. “Each by itself has profound pitfalls and perils,” Bonhoeffer goes on to say. “One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feeling, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.”
Let him who cannot be alone beware of community…let him who is not in community beware of being alone.
©Ruth Haley Barton, 2013.
Ruth Haley Barton (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Baptist Seminary) is founder of the Transforming Center. A teacher, spiritual director and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.
When have you experienced the dangers of solitude without community and community without solitude? Leave a comment below.